Category Archives: Blog

Cancer recovery and return to work: An integrated approach

Cancer recovery and return to work: An integrated approach.

By Julie Denning, PhD. CPsychol, Managing Director at Working To Wellbeing.


In 2014 there were 360,000 new cancer diagnoses with a predicted rise to 422,000 by 2022. Data suggests around 60% of people survive cancer (Seifart & Scmielau 2017).

As increasing numbers of people are living with and beyond cancer, it is time to start addressing their needs on a larger and more inclusive scale.   Whilst advances in medical interventions are staggering, support for the sequelae of those treatments is often lacking.

People in our service often report a “black hole” post treatment or as if they are falling off a cliff.  They may still have links to their oncology or surgical team but still experience physical and psychological difficulties.  They also may be unsure about what to do about work. Indeed post treatment, many people do not return to work because of emotional difficulties and many report that physical difficulties are an obstacle to return.

Mood and physical issues

Early intervention support should be provided to help people have a smooth recovery post cancer diagnosis.  Evidence has shown that people benefit from vocational rehabilitation support.  This can come in the form of supporting the engagement in exercise and activity throughout treatment and afterwards.  Just providing reassurance that it is OK to exercise can be enough to get people moving and becoming active again.   We know that people often need a graded exercise programme to increase strength and stamina and also to enable functional activity and recovery.

People also need to have the opportunity to talk about the impact their diagnosis has had and to express their feelings about their situation with someone who is outside their social sphere so that they can have the ability to talk without guilt or worry.  As an example, I once called a patient for a review and found out that he was in hospital again.  I said I would call back another time, but he was insistent we have the call.  He wanted to talk through how he was feeling with me rather than upsetting and worrying his wife when she arrived later that day to visit him.

Furthermore, it is important to discuss people’s fear of recurrence and changes to their ‘normal’ lifestyle.  Early conversations mean that worries don’t balloon into panic and generalized anxiety. It is important to note too, that people won’t necessarily need CBT as an intervention, they may just need the opportunity to talk and process what has happened to them.

An integrated service model that provides both physical and mental health support is key. By ‘joining the dots’, such a model helps people to focus on their recovery, improve their functioning and when ready, rehabilitate back into work.

Practical considerations for return to work and employer support

It is important to understand the impact of symptoms in relation to returning to work.  Clinicians have a vital role to understand this so they can help someone return to everyday functioning. Employers need to adhere to the Equality Act and make reasonable adjustments to support their returning employee, so it is important that they also understand how someone’s symptoms may impact on them returning to work.

For example, if someone is experiencing fatigue this may affect their concentration, focus, communication and mental processing.  Neuropathy in one’s hands or feet can affect dexterity for typing and writing and difficulties in walking.  Anxiety and/or low mood can impact on concentration, productivity can cause a lack of focus, relationship difficulties and lethargy.  Pain can result in difficulty sitting for long periods at a desk.

Knowing what their colleague is going through post cancer diagnosis and treatment can help employers to best support them. Indeed, they have a crucial role to play.  Often this comes down to a line manager level, but having helpful, proactive policies in place at an organisational level and creating a culture of support for return is essential.  If employers see that work is a key part of recovery for someone and clinicians see work as a health outcome, then there would be greater impetus to create a supportive work environment.

3rdSector engagement

The third sector is noticeably engaging in the work conversation.  Macmillan is spearheading the way forward not only with their plethora of information booklets and online information but also more recently with their work support service helpline where people can be offered advice as to return to work planning. Anthony Nolan have gone a step further and provides a brief intervention service supporting patients post-transplant with their work plans as well as providing emotional support and guidance as to exercise and activity.

Conclusions: more VR needed, more integrated support

In conclusion, support is urgently needed for a growing body of people who are living with and beyond cancer.  They may have been cured or told they are in remission, but their story continues as they are often facing other challenges, both physically, emotionally and vocationally.

Their needs must be met and their voice must be heard.

We must ensure that they have access to early intervention services to meet their physical and mental health needs so that they are able, when ready, to return to the workplace.  Providing early integrated vocational rehabilitation services must move higher up the agenda at both a government, clinical and employer level.





Collaboration is key

Collaboration is key

Dr Justin Varney, MBBS MSc FFPH HonFOM

Collaboration not competition is fundamental for the future and this is absolutely the case in the sphere of occupational health.

The occupational health profession is diverse and varied with professionals coming from many different parts of medicine, nursing, the allied health professions, psychology, occupational hygiene, health and safety and ergonomics.

Each of the professional groups however is small and, perhaps with the exception of health and safety professionals, have limited visibility and voice within their ‘parent specialism’.  As professionals they work in, and across, the public, private and voluntary sector. They often have portfolio careers that patchwork together clinical practice in different settings, industries and sectors, all working to enable individuals to remain in, or return to work in ways that work for them and their health conditions.

As the public sector faces an ageing population who are living longer with increasingly complex needs there is an understandable focus on shifting training resource into areas of acute pressure like general practice and geriatrics rather than into occupational health training. Although there is a strong case that reducing training capacity in the professionals will ultimately be a false economy, something to discuss in another blog!

Over the last fifty years there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of work and the change continues to accelerate and deepen in its implications for individuals and for occupational health.

Digital and technological breakthrough has seen many employees moved away from the high occupational risk exposures of front line heavy manufacturing processes to technical, hospitality or administrative roles. Patterns of musculoskeletal disease may well shift from lower limb and lower spinal issues to upper limb and upper spine issues linked to the way we use our computers and phones rather than the way we lift and twist.

This sits alongside the shift to mandatory manual handling training and office health and safety instruction which has increased both employer and employee understanding of health and safety as well as the strengthening through case law and legislative reform of the punative risks associated with organisational negligence and accountability.

Finally the global nature of business also provides a new dimension of occupational health with 4 out of 5 jobs in the top 40 economies linked to directly to global supply chains and business networks. Both recreational and occupational travel creates new vectors for disease communication as well as new dimensions of cross-cultural occupational health practice.

The landscape of occupational health has never been more complex and that is why collaboration is key to the future of occupational health practice. It is only by working together across professional and sectoral boundaries that as partners in the Council of Health and Work that we can make the leaps and bounds that are needed to respond to, and position for, the changing and evolving future of work and health.



PHE Health and Work Clinical Champion

Dr Rob Hampton, PHE Health and Work Clinical Champion


One of the recommendations from the Improving Lives Command Paper published in November 2017 was the introduction of a Medical Champion for Work as a Health Outcome. In our conversations with patients, healthcare practitioners are used to asking questions about the lifestyle factors that underpin health such as diet, exercise, alcohol and smoking.


But there’s another important question that we need to consider: ‘How is work?’ This role aims to support colleagues in understanding the importance of work as a health outcome with guidance around having those conversations.


Good work[1]is good for us. It isn’t just about gaining economic benefit but more to do with social connections, physical activity and intellectual challenge. There is clear evidence to show that good work helps us to be healthier and happier[2].


Conversely being out of work increases our patients’ risk of ill-health. Long-term unemployment increases the risk of limiting illness and worsening mental health and the longer we’re out of work; the more likely it is to impact on our health[3]. Working can be considered a health outcome in itself, reflecting how well we are supporting individuals to adapt to or recover from their health challenges.


In general practice we have an opportunity to use our trusted relationships with the people we care for to help them maximize the health benefits of being in work.


This could mean preventing our patients from falling out of work, or for those who aren’t working because of a disability, medical condition or injury, helping them return at a time that’s right for them and their health.


It can all start with a conversation.


There’s so much we can do to help people stay in and return to work, from providing key information or boosting a patient’s confidence through to helping with pain management or coping with stress.


For example, clinicians can signpost to resources that charities have developed to help our patients, and their employers, to maintain good work and good health. Conditions covered by these resources include people with cancer, musculoskeletal pain, mental health problems and heart disease.


And crucially, we can make an impact even when our time with patients is limited.


As a Work and Health Clinical Champion I meet GP’s all over the country and I highlight the following key actions:


  • Starting conversations about work– asking patients about their work is clinically useful in itself, but it can also open up an opportunity to talk about how important work is to them, how confident they are and whether their health is proving to be a barrier.
  • Discussing reasonable adjustments– employers have a legal duty to consider reasonable adjustments but many people haven’t considered this as an option. We can raise awareness of opportunities that could be offered by an employer for instance flexibility around hours or changes to the working environment.
  • Signposting or making referrals– There will be options emerging in your area that may include NHS or community provision, services linked to local job centers or information online. Social prescribing is emerging as a great referral route for such employment support



Work from the Improving Lives paper, is already under way to help one million people with long term physical and mental health conditions stay-in or return-to the workforce. This is an ambitious plan to change the landscape and move vocational rehabilitation closer to mainstream healthcare.


Ultimately we need to ensure that people are supported by employers that are committed to creating healthier workplaces and the right health and wellbeing support for their staff. We also want everyone to understand the importance of work as a health outcome and feel supported by a health system which promotes an understanding of good work and good health. 


[1]M. Marmot, 2010. Fair Society Healthy Lives, The Marmot Review.



How to achieve better employee health and wellbeing in UK plc. Christian van Stolk, Vice President of RAND Europe

How to achieve better employee health and wellbeing in UK PLC

Imagine an employer who loses about 30 days of productive time per employee due to IT problems. It’s likely an executive would have tough discussions with the IT suppliers or the responsible manager within the organisation. Consequences would happen if the problem persisted.

Now, imagine an employer who loses about 30 days in productivity on account of an employee coming to work in suboptimal health. In most cases there are few, if any, consequences .Most employers find it much more difficult to act and many small-to-medium sized organisations do nothing at all.

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace is an annual survey of employers and their employees sponsored by Vitality Health). Last year’s survey shows that on average UK employers lose these 30 days per employee per year due to absenteeism and presenteeism (being in suboptimal health while at work).

About 28 days out of this 30 day lost per employee can be attributed to employees coming to work when in suboptimal health and being less productive. According to our analysismental health appears to be the main factor, explaining about 30 per cent of presenteeism. Mental health problems are often compounded by lack of sleep, financial concerns, caring responsibilities and issues in the workplace, such as lack of control over what one does at work or poor relationships.

There is also a significant link between mental health and musculoskeletal conditions. When looking at demographics, it is clear that the young have much higher productivity loss and poorer mental health compared to other age groups. The same goes for those employees on relatively low pay. Overall, these trends seem to be getting worse over the years that the survey has been conducted, contributing to rising productivity loss in the workplace.

Many larger employers have a range of programmes and interventions that aim to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees. However, there is a disconnect between what employers tell us is happening within the workplace and the experience of employees recorded in the surveys.

About  50 per cent of employees have access to the programmes according to employers. From the employee survey, we know that only 22 per cent are aware of the employer programme with only about one-third of this data set participating in the programme. This is a missed opportunity. Our work on the data suggests that almost 75 per cent of employees perceive a health and wellbeing benefit from participation. Analysis of employees responding to the survey over the years also finds that employees who participate or even start involvement in any employer programme improve on a wider set of outcomes: cardiovascular health; mental health; perceptions of bullying; and productivity targets. Many of those participating are also not in the at-risk groups such as the young or those on lower incomes.

A number of factors seem to be associated with higher participation in programmes and better health and wellbeing outcomes: allowing employees time during working hours to participate; senior leadership and line manager support; and external and internal reporting on human capital. These all point to the importance of senior management showing leadership – from participation in the programmes through setting health and wellbeing as a strategic priority, and finally, monitoring progress over time. The more enlightened employers understand the prize. Happier and healthier employees are important from a corporate social responsibility point of view, but promoting employee health and wellbeing also makes complete business sense.

Christian van Stolk is a Vice President of RAND Europe. RAND Europe is a not-for- profit research organisation that conducts the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace surveys annually.